Iconic songwriter Allen Toussaint passed away today at age 77. A New Orleans native, and a mainstay of the city’s musical life for well over 50 years, Toussaint wrote, arranged and produced for Big Easy legends such as the Meters, Dr. John and Lee Dorsey. Rolling Stone reached Toussaint in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 devastation of the city. In this previously unpublished interview with Contributing Editor Steve Knopper, Toussaint reflects on the resilience of New Orleans culture and the depth of his connection to the city he loved.
How are you doing?
I’m very well. Thank you very much. I normally would stay right through hurricanes — I’ve been through all of them since I was born. This one, of course, was the biggie — this was the zenith of hurricanes. I stayed in my home until it was just about recommended that anyone should leave that area, so I went and checked into Astor Hotel on Canal Street. Then the storm really, really hit and water was everywhere. Canal Street was flooded — I wouldn’t say it was up to roofs on Canal Street, but it was at least too high to drive a conventional vehicle through. We were stuck in a hotel and then the power went out, of course; then the water lines were corrupted and corroded. The water was not totally safe — they recommended that water was boiled before you consumed it. I used bottled water after that. I was in a hotel where the people did very well on limited resources; they ran a generator.
I must say I saw the human drama in full force. I saw the balancing act of heroes and mulligans — but I saw more heroes than I saw “other than.” In spite of all that it was, and is, I’m glad that I was there through it because I’m a diehard Orleanian for one thing. If it happened in New Orleans — whether it’s good bad or indifferent — I’m glad I was there. As much water as they had, my spirit did not get consumed. I’m looking forward to the future of rebuilding New Orleans. I never was worried about my life, no. I always knew exactly where I was and the conditions — it was always livable to me …. As ironically as it may sound, I was still glad to be there.
When and how did you leave?
It was the day before — when they were announcing that the city should be evacuated. My way of evacuating the city was just evacuating my house and going down to a hotel. The area that I live in … They showed aerial shots, could only see rooftops. I did the right thing by going to the hotel when I did. My house, two floors — maybe something [can be] salvaged on [the] second level. My piano and all my equipment — that’s all probably gone. But it has served me well for a long time so I really don’t mind the process of rebuilding.